Every golf major is pregnant with storylines, but The Open Championship seems to be especially stuffed with them this year. Maybe it’s because of the return to Northern Ireland, or maybe it’s because The Open is the last major until April 2020 (my gosh). Either way, this year’s hype for perhaps the most fun major to watch on television is especially high.
Surely many additional storylines will emerge as the week goes on (remember when amateurs Paul Dunne and Jordan Niebrugge contended at St. Andrews in 2015?). But heading into the 148th Open, here are 10 narratives I’ll be keeping an eye on as we crown one final major champion in 2019.
1. Fairy tale ending: It hit me the other night as I prepared for this year’s event that Rory McIlroy is going to win this Open. A full 14 years after announcing his presence in the golf world with a 61 at Royal Portrush, McIlroy — the best golfer in the world this season and the best Open player of the last five years — is poised to close the circle on what has been a wild decade and a half. A win here in Northern Ireland for the kid (The Kid) from Northern Ireland is the only way this tournament and this major season can end. Right?
2. Portrush? Portrush! It’s a gem in ways other Open courses are not. They’re all magic, obviously, but Portrush — like Pebble Beach — will come off as magic on TV. That might not matter, but it also might. Sometimes, Open courses don’t pop on TV like they do in person for a variety of reasons. I don’t think that’s going to be a problem here.
3. Five is in play (so is 16): Four golfers have a chance to enter some rare major-winning air this week. Tiger Woods is going for his 16th major, Phil Mickelson is going for his sixth, and the two favorites — Rory McIlroy and Brooks Koepka — are both going for their fifth. Should one of those two win this week, they would be on the precipice of rarefied air. There are only 13 golfers (!) in the history of the sport with more than five major championships. Rory will obviously be the story (see No. 1), but Koepka is a tour de force at majors where he’s finished in the top two in six of his last nine. This major runs through both of them.
4. Tiger’s health is an X-factor: I’ve been a little bit surprised by just how much Woods’ back (and neck and whatever else ails him) has been discussed this season. Not because it shouldn’t be, but it almost seems like we are talking about it more since he won the Masters than we did before that victory. He’s played just one non-major since that Masters win, but he did get over to Northern Ireland a bit early for some practice with Patrick Reed on Sunday. It’s a bit of a win-win situation for Woods. If he plays well, all is good. If he plays poorly, we’ll immediately start looking for excuses for him. Because of that Masters win, we know he can play at the highest level, and if he doesn’t then, well, there must have been a reason.
5. Mickelson’s drought: It’s been three full years since Lefty has placed in the top 10 at a major. The last time he did it was the toughest runner-up finish of all time when he lost to Henrik Stenson at Royal Troon in 2016. Mickelson said this weekend that he recently lost 15 pounds and did a six-day water and coffee fast to prep himself for the rest of the season. I’m not sure there’s anything you can do at his age to get the major feels back, but I also know he has more magic than most.
6. Graeme McDowell comes home: Rory’s story — winning his home country — is obviously more realistic, but McDowell’s journey may hit even closer to home. Here’s what he wrote about the experience recently after getting into the event at the 11th hour with a great finish at the Canadian Open.
It’s going to be an extremely proud week to be from the North Coast of Ireland. It’s been amazing to see The Open Championship evolve in the sleepy little town where I was born. For anyone who has never been there, Portrush is on the very northern tip of the Island of Ireland and is a very raw, beautiful, rugged landscape which feels very remote. To see an Open being staged there is mind-blowing for many of the local people. Even for the likes of myself, Rory and Darren, it’s a bit special to see it coming back to Northern Ireland for the first time since 1951.
I never really thought that I would see it in my career. I was born and bred in Portrush, but Rory and Darren are also synonymous with Portrush for good reasons. Rory has competed there for many years and shot 61 in his early teens and Darren moved there in his 20s when he married Heather, who was a local girl. I always remember when my school bus went past Darren’s house and I used to look out the window to see what Ferrari or Porsche was in the driveway and thinking to myself that one day that could be me.
7. Will Spieth find himself? Only Rory McIlroy has more top 10s in the last five Opens than Jordan Spieth, but Spieth has been working through the toughest year of his career so far. A T65 at the U.S. Open and missed cut at the Travelers Championship don’t engender a ton of optimism following three straight top 10s (aided by much smoke and many mirrors) prior to Pebble Beach. Like Mickelson, I think Spieth has a ton of magic left to distribute, and the linksland has a way of accelerating the chosen ones. I don’t know if that will happen this week, but for some reason, I feel more confident about it than I have in a long time.
8. Which Sergio will we get? You used to be able to set your watch (an Omega, of course) by Sergio Garcia at The Open. He has 11 top 10s in his career and had three straight from 2014-16 before the fade set in. Following his Masters win, Garcia finished T37 at the 2017 Open and missed the cut last year, which was in the middle of seven straight missed cuts at majors (only stopped by a T52 at the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach). Garcia’s game is theoretically perfect for Opens, but it hasn’t translated of late. Hopefully, for the sake of content of course, the watch gets reset in 2019 and we get another vintage Sergio performance.
9. Political instability: When you tell the story of Northern Ireland, it’s impossible to tell it without talking about “The Troubles.” The Protestants and the Catholics in that region feuded horrifically for decades, and it’s woven into the fabric of that country and will be for as long as it exists. It’s one of the reasons we haven’t seen a major at this course in such a long time.
“The Troubles,” otherwise known as the Northern Ireland conflict, was a complicated religious and political struggle that lasted the better part of 30 years into the late 1990s. (Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, along with England, Scotland and Wales. Although there is no hard border, Ireland is a separate nation with a different currency.)
Staging a golf tournament such as The Open would have been out of the question. Actually, staging any golf event of prominence would have been nearly impossible. After the 1951 Open, the R&A staged the 1960 Amateur Championship at Portrush — an event that did not return until 1993.
Just how this affects the tournament remains to be seen (hopefully not too seen), but it will certainly exist on the periphery and in the backs of the minds of those in Northern Ireland who are elated about their first Open Championship since the 1950s.
10. The finale: The Open should be the last major of the year. There, I said it. We can argue all day about whether it’s the best or toughest or most proper or whatever, but I don’t know that there’s a super compelling argument for a different major being the last one. Come Sunday evening, as the orange sun sets into the black waters of the North Atlantic and a summer afternoon melts into a summer evening, a silver jug will be distributed. And that sun will not just be setting on a new champ but on a full major season with nine whole months until the Masters commences thousands of miles to the east. It is fitting that the continent upon which golf started gets to end its most important stretch every year. It’s the way it should be and hopefully will be for a long, long time.